China and Australia’s new centre-left government have launched rival bids to woo Pacific Island nations, both sending their foreign ministers to the region to boost influence in the region.
China’s Foreign minister Wang Yi signed a bilateral agreement with Samoa on Saturday to strengthen diplomatic ties on the third stop in an eight-nation tour by the Chinese delegation, after initial visits to the Solomon Islands and Kiribati.
The Samoan government said Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa met Wang Yi and discussed “climate change, the pandemic and peace and security”.
After, they signed economic and technical cooperation agreements for “projects to be determined”, while China presented a handover certificate for an Arts and Culture Centre, a Samoa-China Friendship Park, plus documents related to a fingerprint laboratory for police to complement construction of the Police Academy.
The government noted in its statement that the key to these relations was “adherence to the One China policy”. The Solomons, Kiribati and Samoa all now recognize Beijing instead of Taiwan.
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China wants to build on a security pact it signed recently with the Solomon Islands, and is seeking a 10-nation deal on security and trade.
The security agreement between China and the Solomons has alarmed the United States and allies like Australia and New Zealand, who fear a stepped-up military presence by Beijing.
At a press conference in Honiara after meeting his counterpart from the Solomons, Wang Yi said China had “no intention at all to establish a military base.”
Meanwhile, Australia’s new centre-left government led by Anthony Albanese, who was sworn in on Monday, has made the Pacific Islands an early diplomatic priority.
The new leader said he had a “comprehensive plan” for the Pacific, which includes a defence training school, support for maritime security, a boost in aid and re-engaging the region on climate change.
“We will be proactive in the region, we want to engage,” Albanese told reporters.
The Australians got a boost on Saturday when Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said he had a “wonderful meeting” with Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who visited days after taking office to show the new government’s attention to the Pacific Islands.
Fiji is not anyone’s backyard — we are a part of a Pacific family. And our greatest concern isn’t geopolitics — it’s climate change.
In that spirit, I had a wonderful meeting with Foreign Minister @SenatorWong to strengthen our Vuvale Partnership with Australia. pic.twitter.com/RH80dPnCAk
— Frank Bainimarama (@FijiPM) May 27, 2022
The Fijian PM appeared to be taking a veiled swipe at Scott Morrison, the conservative prime minister ousted in an election last weekend, who once referred to the Pacific as Australia’s “backyard”.
Climate change, which Pacific Island nations consider an existential threat, had been a key issue in the election.
Australia’s Wong has said that Canberra will be a partner that does not come with strings attached, while China appears to be offering infrastructure projects.
Wang was headed to Fiji late on Saturday, where he is expected to push for the regional deal in a meeting he will host on Monday.
• Jim Pollard with Reuters
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